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New Bill: Colombia Will Legalize Cocaine?

cocaine legalization
Written by Sarah Friedman

The push and pull of the cannabis legalization issue can be seen all over the globe, with a recent UN vote officially legalizing cannabis for medical use. But what about cocaine? Is the medical value of cocaine coming back into play? A current bill is making its way through the Colombian government that says Colombia will legalize cocaine.

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Colombia and cocaine have gone together like peanut butter and jelly since Pablo Escobar started using old cannabis trafficking routes to move the white powder out of Colombia, and to the rest of the world. Now, with a new bill moving its way through Colombian government, its looking like there’s a good chance Colombia will legalize cocaine.

A look at the history of cocaine

When it comes to cocaine, the main story that we all know starts in the middle of the 70’s with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, however cocaine has been used for much longer than that. In fact, in South American countries like Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, locals have been chewing on coca leaves for thousands of years to get their mildly stimulating effect. This allowed workers to suppress their appetites and work longer hours.

When the Spanish came to South America, they wanted to send their spoils back home, and employed the locals to work long hours digging up gold and silver, for which they enforced the use of coca leaves. At this time, the leaves themselves were not being taken anywhere as they couldn’t maintain through the journey back to Europe. For this reason, use stayed local for quite some time.

coca leaves

It wasn’t until the 1800’s that German chemist Albert Niemann was able to isolate the active compound of the plant which he renamed ‘cocaine’ in his 1860 published finding. Niemann didn’t get to do much more work with the drug as he died the following year from damage to his lungs caused by experimenting with mustard gas as a weapon for war.

A few years later, in 1863, Corsican chemist Angela Mariani created a mixture of cocaine and wine which was sold as a medicine for the treatment of anemia, pain, as an appetite suppressant, and stomach stimulant. He called it Vin Mariani. This concoction gained notoriety all over the world, and led to the creation of many different – yet similar – products containing cocaine.

One of the many copycats was US pharmacist John Pemberton who made his own wine and cocaine mixture. When the Ku Klux Klan demanded that alcohol be banned in Atlanta in the mid-1860’s, Pemberton came up with a new idea, and replaced the alcohol in the drink with soda water, a mixture he called Coca-Cola. Yes, for anyone not in the know, Coca-Cola did, in fact, once contain cocaine. Before it had to be taken out of the beverage upon growing health concerns in the early 1900’s, Pemberton had reformulated the drink to have 7.2mg of cocaine per ounce. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act put forth regulation for the cocaine industry, which essentially ended it for many decades, apart from people using it like rich Hollywood stars.

The more recent cocaine story

And now back to the story we’re all familiar with, although how it started might not be as familiar. Even before Pablo Escobar came on the scene, the road was already being paved for a new cocaine boom. The New York Times published an article in 1974 which stated cocaine was “a good high achieved without the forbiddingly dangerous needle and addiction of heroin.”

This was followed up by a book written by journalist Richard Ashley, which failed to find negatives associated with cocaine apart from those related to not having common sense. Even Newsweek Magazine published illustrations of high-class folks doing lines of cocaine.

And perhaps all this helped Escobar to do his thing. By using old cannabis trafficking lines, Escobar built up a trafficking network to move cocaine out of Colombia, inciting a massive and violent drug war. This war exploded in 1975 when in retaliation for the seizure of 600kg of cocaine by law enforcement, the cartel took out about 40 people in one weekend, known after that as the ‘Medellin Massacre’. It’s thought that at the peak of its existence, the Medellin Cartel was bringing in approximately $60 million per day in profits. What really allowed the cartel to take off, was its partnership with Carlos Lehder, a marijuana smuggler who showed Escobar and his partners Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, and the Ochoa brothers, how to use small planes to fly the cocaine directly into the US. While much coca is grown in Colombia, at that time, the majority was being imported from Bolivia and Peru, and only processed in Colombia before being trafficked out.

cartel violence

One of the factors that led to Escobar’s downfall and death, was competing cartel, the Cali Cartel which started operations only a year after the Medellin Cartel, in 1977, and which is said to have worked with the government to bring Escobar down. This cartel started as a kidnapping ring, and then focused its earnings into trafficking, starting with marijuana, and moving onto cocaine. While Escobar is still the biggest name in cocaine history, the history of cocaine didn’t stop with his death. It was carried on by the Cali cartel, the Norte del Valle Cartel which operated from the early 90’s till around 2012, the North Coast Cartel which operated from the late 90’s till around 2004, and a number of smaller groups with more specific, compartmentalized jobs, that have operated in conjunction since then.

One last thing to remember about the history of cocaine, according to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Substances 1961, though cocaine is in schedule I, it’s also schedule III, making it perfectly legal internationally for medical use:

“III – Preparations of substances listed in Schedule II, as well as preparations of cocaine”

The trade

Two of the things that are extremely hard to pin down, are how much money exactly is earned (though this is much easier), and how many people die (and have died), as a result of this trade. In terms of the latter, when questioned about it concerning a line that came up from an episode of Narcos, Elizabeth Zili, the former DEA head of intelligence in Colombia affirmed that no hard numbers exist saying “I really couldn’t give you a number, but it was extremely high. We never totally trusted the statistics we were getting from the [Colombian] government. One never does, no matter where you are.” Even if hard numbers for death tolls can’t be confirmed, that thousands of people have died since the 70’s as part of the trade is generally not argued.

When it comes to the former point on how much is earned, (and how much is used), here are some basic stats. One kilo of cocaine is produced by processing about 125 kilos of coca leaves. This production costs a local drug lab approximately $137.50. Once the leaves are turned into actual cocaine, the value goes up to $2,269. This same amount can garner a profit of about $60,000+ in America, and more internationally, with the value going as high as $235,000 in a place like Australia.

Pretty much all the cocaine in the world comes from Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, with Colombia providing about 70% of it in 2018. About 4% of the world’s population (or 300 million) have used cocaine in their lives, with approximately 18.1 million people using the drug in 2018 alone. As of 2018, approximately 169,000 hectares of land are being used for growing coca in Colombia, and about 130,000 families survive by farming it.

Will it be legalized?

Obviously, the title of this article isn’t about history, but the future, and the question of whether Colombia will legalize cocaine. In an effort to curb the drug trade, different avenues have been tried like eradicating plants by spraying chemicals on them aerially, forced crop substitutions so that farmers can maintain income, and decriminalization. None of it has worked. One of the bigger steps taken though, was the decriminalization of all drugs in 1994, including hard drugs like cocaine. Now, in a further effort to curb trafficking, the Colombian government might take this decriminalization one step further with a bill saying Colombia will legalize cocaine.

Colombia will legalize cocaine

In 2019, a bill was introduced by Colombian senators Feliciano Valencia and Ivan Marulanda as a new way to fight the war on drugs. The proposed legislation revolves around the idea that Colombia will legalize cocaine, and is a cocaine use and regulation bill which would move control of cultivation and production to the government (and away from cartels). The bill doesn’t specify a ban on exportation of the drug, but focuses more on cutting financing to cartels, just like Uruguay did with its legalization for recreational cannabis. It would also push for more scientific research into it. This bill comes about a year after the introduction of a bill for the legalization of cannabis recreationally.

To say that there is opposition to this bill is an understatement, but its not an impossibility. It also would NOT be the first country to do it. Back in 1988, Bolivia did the very same thing, passing Law 1008 which legalized the cultivation of coca and instated a regulated industry. This, of course, did not stop the US from trying to eradicate fields, and even led to Operation Naked King, a DEA sting operation as late as 2015 targeting Evo Morales, the Bolivian president who drove the DEA out of Bolivia in 2008. Not only is there opposition, but as Bolivia shows, the US makes such a move a rather risky one, and calls into question whether there is a possibility at all that Colombia will legalize cocaine.

To shed more light on the current Colombian initiative, it wouldn’t just set up a regulated, government-run industry, it would actually require the government to buy all the coca grown, for redistribution for medical purposes. The idea would be for the government to buy the coca at market prices. If it seems like this would be incredibly expensive, consider that this move would cost Colombia approximately 2.6 trillion pesos ($680 million USD), whereas eradication programs actually cost four trillion pesos ($1 billion USD) annually. It’s essentially cheaper if the government buys it, rather than destroying it. This allows farmers to keep their businesses while bringing them into a legal market, and cuts down on deforestation by farmers in attempts to hide crops. The government would then provide raw materials to different industries for the production of baking flour, foods, teas, and other medicinal products.

To be clear, because of the decriminalization in 1994, personal use of cocaine, is actually legal, although a 2018 decree does give law enforcement the ability to confiscate it.


Getting people on board to accept cannabis legalizations has been an arduous task. This can be seen in the rejection of the removal of cannabis from schedule I of the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Substances, which just failed recently. So, the idea of selling the legalization of an even harder drug is no easy feat. Perhaps it is lucky for Colombia that Bolivia went first.

I tend to think that when these initiatives come up, they mean something, even if they originally fail. I don’t know if this bill will pass, but chances are that if this one doesn’t, the next one will. There is a drive and motivation to change how the industry works, to redistribute the cash flow, and to actually use the drug more efficiently. Just like with cannabis legalizations, it isn’t always the first effort that works, but once the idea has been initiated, you can be 99% sure that there will be a follow-through eventually. I’d say at this point, Colombia will legalize cocaine, its just a matter of when.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.